Volcanologist, Dr. Rebecca Williams @Volcanologist: A Day in the GeoLife Series


Dr. Rebecca Williams, Volcanologist, on board the Joides Resolution as part of Expedition 330 to the Louisville Seamount Trail, SW Pacific Ocean

NAME:  Dr. Rebecca Williams

CURRENT TITLE:  Lecturer in Geology (Volcanology) at the University of Hull, United Kingdom, since February 2013.

AREA OF EXPERTISE:  I’m a volcanologist who specialises in hazardous volcanic flows, igneous petrology and geochemistry.

YEARS EXPERIENCE:  9 years of education, and 5 years working as a volcanologist.

EDUCATION: BSc Geology, Royal Holloway, University of London. 1999-2002; MS Geology (Volcanology), University at Buffalo, State University of New York, 2004-2006; PhD Geology (Volcanology), University of Leicester, 2006-2010.

WEBSITE:  http://www2.hull.ac.uk/science/gees.aspx

What’s your job like?

Mostly brilliant! It’s very varied and changes from day-to-day, and throughout the year. There are two main sides to my job, teaching and research, though they both inform the other! 

The research I do is reasonably varied. My first love is hazardous volcanic flows, like lahars and pyroclastic density currents. I study the deposits from these flows in the field at a variety of volcanoes around the world (e.g. http://gees-talk.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/whats-that-coming-over-hill.html). I also simulate these currents using computer programmes (http://gees-talk.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/the-trouble-with-lahars.html) and am starting to model them experimentally in the lab! I’m also interested in the geochemistry of volcanic deposits and what this can tell us about the eruption that formed them and the source of the magma. This can involve fieldwork, including spending 2 months living on a scientific drilling boat (IODP Expedition 330; http://iodp.tamu.edu/scienceops/expeditions/louisville_seamounts.html), but mostly involves a lot of lab work, like dissolving rocks in acid. The time I’ve spent working with volcano observatories has also meant that I’ve developed an interest in the impact volcanoes have on local communities and, in turn, how local communities can impact a volcano. 

Pahoehoe lava flow, observed whilst working as a gas geochemist at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory

Pahoehoe lava flow, observed whilst working as a gas geochemist at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory

I also teach at university, and spend a lot of my time preparing and delivering lectures, practicals and tutorials on all aspects of geology and physical geography. I particularly like teaching volcanology (obviously!), rock and mineral identification and interpretation, geological maps and a bit of structural geology. So this means that I have to keep my knowledge up to date on a range of subjects and stops me getting too focussed on volcanoes! Best of all though, I get to pass on this knowledge to some wonderful students and prepare them for a future life as a geologist, and perhaps, inspire some to become volcanologists!

What’s a typical day like?

I normally leave for work between 7 and 9 am, depending on what I have on for the day. During term time, when I’m teaching a lot, it’s normally closer to 7! If I’m teaching, I’ll typically have a couple of hours of lectures or practicals to deliver each day. I have an open door policy, so I’d expect a couple of students to stop by to chat, ask for help on some work or perhaps talk about their dissertations. I’d also need to plan and prepare material for teaching, and mark some essays, or practical reports. Emails seem to come in non-stop and I also keep up to date with geology news via Twitter – a great resource for hearing about new eruptions or research that has been published! If I’m lucky, I’ll get some research done by either doing some lab work, crunching some geochemistry results, or maybe talking to collaborators or research students.

Most of my research gets done during the vacations. So, it’s coming towards the end of the summer and I’ve been working on writing three papers from two of my research projects. I’ve been planning new lab experiments that my dissertation students are going to do some pilot projects with and supervised a Nuffield student who has done some work with me on the Green Tuff pyroclastic density current (http://gees-talk.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/high-school-students-as-research.html). I might spend the whole day writing, trying to draw figures and diagrams to explain my research, or staring at rocks down a microscope – every day is a bit different! 

Logging through volcanic deposits for research (credit: Sally Smith).

Logging through volcanic deposits for research (credit: Sally Smith).

Every day I do get to interact with some fabulous colleagues all doing exciting research I love to hear about, meet with students who can often teach me new things as often as I teach them, and drink a lot of coffee. I normally head home from the office at around 5, or sometimes as late as 7. On some days like today though, I also work from home as a lot of the writing of either research papers or lecture material can be done from my laptop!

What’s fun?

So much of it is fun. My students are fabulous and imparting my geological geekiness is very rewarding. Working with other great geologists and geographers means that every day I learn something new, from mass extinctions to fascism to digital technologies in farming! But best of all, I get to spend my days either discovering new things about volcanoes, or planning how I can answer a question in volcanology. I’m very curious, and being a scientist is great for that!

Simulating explosive volcanic eruptions while teaching volcanology to my students (credit: Mike Park)

Simulating explosive volcanic eruptions while teaching volcanology to my students (credit: Mike Park)

What’s challenging?

If it sounds like I do a lot from the above descriptions, it’s because I do. It can be very difficult to balance all the commitments I have at work and sometimes I work very long days or at the weekend. Or sometimes, it just means that I can’t do a project that I want to, or spend as much time on something as I think it deserves.

What’s your advice to students?

Study what you enjoy, and what you’re passionate about. There is so much pressure on students now to do well, and target a career. Whilst those things are important, university is a time to be curious, to learn new things and enjoy yourself. Make the most of it that you can, experience as much as you can and follow through on the things that you are most interested in. Oh, and the time you spend in the classroom is only the beginning to the study you are supposed to do! Always read more than is on the reading list, seek help if you need it and there is (almost) no such thing as a stupid question!


Rock specimens – credit: Mike Park

%d bloggers like this: